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What's bugging you? Aug. 16, 2017

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Plateau striped whiptail

Leapin' lizards! Am I really going to include a reptile in my beasties series? You bet I am. The most interesting, to my mind, is the plateau striped whiptail (Aspidoscelis velox). This lizard is truly an Amazon!

In Greek mythology, the Amazons were a race of women warriors who isolated themselves from men, except for an annual visit to a neighboring tribe for the purposes of reproduction. Any male babies that resulted were killed, abandoned or given to a neighboring tribe. Only females were allowed to remain in Amazon territory. Plateau striped whiptails take this "no boys allowed" policy to an even greater extreme. There are no male plateau striped whiptails at all. The entire species is female and they don't even need males to reproduce.

These lizards reproduce asexually, via parthenogenesis, a process in which an egg cell starts dividing and produces an embryo without being fertilized by a sperm. Because there is no contribution of genetic material from a male, the offspring are genetically identical to the mother and therefore a clone.

As bizarre as it may seem, parthenogenesis is not as rare as you might think. It is actually very common in plants. All ants, bees and wasps use parthenogenesis to produce male offspring. And many aphid populations are all females for much of the year.

The plateau striped whiptail lizard is distinguished from other local whiptails by the 6-7 light stripes on its back. Adults range in length from 8 to almost 11 inches in length, counting their tail. Although plateau striped whiptails may be less skittish and thus easier to catch than other lizards, when captured, they may play dead or whip their heads around to bite their captor.

Whiptails forage actively on the ground during the day and eat anything they can catch, including flying insects, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, scorpions and even other lizards. They rarely sit in one place very long. Whiptails seem to travel faster when in the open, relying primarily on vision to detect prey. When under bushes, they typically move slower, scratching and digging with their forefeet into the leaf litter, apparently detecting prey as much by smell as by sight.

While moving through my yard on warm sunny days, I often surprise these striped whiptails, causing them to race across open spaces to find shelter. Boy can they scamper! I'm always comforted knowing that these lizards are helping me control pests in my garden spaces. Now the snakes in my garden, they might give you pause!

Jim Leser retired to Cedaredge in 2007 after a career with Texas A&M University Extension in entomology. He is a member of the Cedaredge Tree Board and a Colorado Master Gardener.

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